As a public service to you, dear reader, I thought I would deconstruct this wonderful piece of media hysteria from today’s Independent.
Britain’s taste for cheap food that’s killing Brazil’s ‘other wilderness’
An “upside-down forest” of small trees with deep roots, Brazil’s wildlife-rich outback is home to a 20th of the world’s species, including the spectacular blue and yellow macaw and giant armadillos.
Yet this vast wilderness – as big the UK, France, Germany, Italy and Spain put together – is being rapidly lost to feed the heavily carnivorous appetites of Britons and others.
Hang on a minute – Britons and others! So it’s not Britain’s ‘taste for cheap food’, it’s the world’s. And the heavily carniverous appetites – note, not meat-eating or plain carniverous but heavily carniverous. We’re savages! We’re disgusting! Not like those nice tofu eating vegetarians..
Hang on another minute – isn’t tofu made from soya?
Yes it is!
It’s vegetarians destroying ‘Brazil’s wildlife-rich outback’! It’s vegetarians putting paid to the spectacular blue and yellow macaw!
What was, only a generation ago, an almost unbroken two million square kilometre mass of trees and bushes (that’s scrub to you and me) in central Brazil is now covered with fields of soy beans, waiting to be fed to pigs and chickens in Europe and China (and vegetarians!). Such has been the pace of conversion to agriculture that more than 50 per cent of the Cerrado has already been lost, threatening the future of some of the region’s most charismatic animals.
WWF, the wildlife group (and climate change advocacy group – you’ll need this information shortly) , now hopes that shoppers in Britain and elsewhere will urge retailers (uh-oh, another campaign to distract us from real issues and boost WWF coffers) to preserve the Cerrado as robustly as the Amazon rainforest, Brazil’s most famous region, where deforestation has dramatically slowed as a result of international pressure (to move farming to somewhere less sensitive… like the Cerrado region).
So far only half of Britain’s supermarkets have joined a responsible trading scheme which has been launched to halt the loss of land, wildlife and the region’s role as a carbon sink (told you!). Britain’s Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman, who visited Brazil last week (by carbon-spewing aircraft, no doubt), now wants them to help by sourcing soy responsibly (which bit of Brazil’s environment will be acceptable, exactly?) . Unless farmers and retailers around the world start putting tougher limits on the growth of soy farming (ie, voluntarily put themselves out of business.. as if that’s going to happen!), there appears to be little hope (of what?) for Brazil’s semi-humid interior (oh noes! If only it were completely humid, we might take it more seriously).
Little known outside Latin America (ie of little interest to anybody, until now that we’ve got another self-aggrandising anti-human initiative), the Cerrado stretches from central Brazil westwards and northwards to the edge of the Amazon, covering 23 per cent of the country. Agronomists discovered 30 years ago that its poor orange soil could be transformed into cash crops (or ‘farmed’ as we used to say).
After decades of conversion to cattle farming and agriculture, overwhelmingly soy, but also corn and coffee, only 20 per cent of pristine Cerrado remains, much fragmented between farmland (hang on a cotton-picking minute! Earlier in this article you were claiming that 50% had been lost. Now it’s 80%. That really is a rapid rate of development, unless you suffered a particularly long bout of writer’s block after paragraph 3).
While acknowledging the case for economic development in a country with a GDP per capita of $10,900 (£6,630) last year, WWF Brazil wants development to take place in an orderly way (as they want rather than the way in which the landowner wants), with much more land set aside for nature than the 3 per cent effectively protected at present.
Inside the country, WWF is stressing the region’s role as the supplier of drinking water for the capital Brasilia (because preserving a bit of scrubland is not very high on the Brazilians’ list of priorities). Michael Becker, leader of WWF Brazil’s Cerrado programme, said: “The Cerrado is very important for Brazil because it is the water basket; many Brazilian rivers begin in the Cerrado. The Cerrado also has lots of carbon… there is a lot of carbon in the deep roots of the trees.”(Does he sound just a little… well, desperate, to you?).
Environmentalists (those rational guardians of cool, scientific integrity) describe the region as an “upside-down forest”because of the roots, which are twice the length of the above-ground growth of the trees (err.. Gotta make it sound unique I guess. I’ve added some pictures at the end – see if you can spot the upside down forest..).
Among the trees are 5 per cent of the world’s animal species and more than 30 per cent of Brazil’s, including the giant anteater and armadillo, the maned wolf, pampas-deer and the endangered tapir. Wildlife groups fear that soy production to meet rising global demand for meat (and tofu!) has shifted from the Amazon rainforest to Brazil’s lesser known interior (what did they expect? Is Brazil to be permitted any farming?).
Overall, annual deforestation of the Amazon has slowed to 0.18 per cent. The vast majority of the rainforest is still standing, 83 per per cent, and 25 per cent is officially protected. The position in the Cerrado is almost the opposite – only 20 per cent of pristine land is intact and only 8 per cent is officially protected (less than 3 per cent on government or state government land).
“Demand for soy is rising globally due to the fact that the soy is used as feed to the meat production industry, mainly in China but also in Europe,” (I know this is taking a lot of your time but.. Hang on a minute, again – the headline said Britain didn’t it?) Mr Becker said. “There has been a shift in the production. The Amazon is much more protected but the demand for soy is still rising, so the demand has been going to other parts of Brazil. The Cerrado is very suitable for production (quite) and therefore the expansion has occurred there” (at this point, if this were not a family blog, I’d be commenting on Mr Becker’s reasoning power with an allusion to Sherlock).
After her visit last week, Ms Spelman said: “The Cerrado is globally important (so important, that we’ve only just discovered that they’ve been developing it for decades) in terms of biodiversity and storing the world’s carbon dioxide (aaaargh!!), but it doesn’t receive the same attention from the international community (in fact, to be perfectly honest, I hadn’t heard of it either until those nice
activists people from WWF used their donations from the worlds’ Mildreds to save the fluffy-wuffy animals to buy me a luxury, all-expenses-paid holiday fact-finding trip). Because of that, people are not aware of the uncertain future it faces.”
WWF wants consumers to demand that British supermarkets and farmers buy soy only from a scheme, the Round Table on Responsible Soy (RTRS) (good grief), which limits deforestation and the use of agrichemicals (ah-ha! Another emotive check-box ticked) .
Although nearly two thirds of the 858,000 tons of soy beans imported into the UK come from Brazil, only four UK supermarkets have joined the RTRS so far: M&S, Waitrose, Asda and Sainsbury’s. Some of the biggest players are absent such as Tesco, responsible for more than 30 per cent of Britain’s £100bn-a-year grocery market.
WWF is hoping that consumers in Europe – which imports around 30 per cent of Brazil’s soy – will eat less meat (and tofu!) to reduce environmental damage and pressure the all-powerful supermarket giants to back the RTRS. In the long run they hope to enlist backing for the scheme from China, which imports 60 per cent of Brazil’s soy and where meat consumption per capita has trebled in 30 years to move within striking distance of higher European levels (those damned meat-eaters again! But.. but..doesn’t China use a huge amount of soy sauce?).
Global pressure has already helped save the Amazon from encroachment. Faced with global outrage (must have missed that) five years ago, the world’s top soybean producers, including US commodities giants Cargill, Archer Daniels Midland and Bunge, and France’s Dreyfus and Brazil’s Amaggi, agreed to stop cutting down the Amazon to plant soy.
Partly as a result of the soy moratorium and stricter management by Brazil, the rate of deforestation in the Amazon slowed to 6,451 sq km in the year to July 2010, 14 per cent down on the previous year and well below rates of 27,772 sq km recorded in 2004 (These impressive numbers are here to scare you – note that even this article admits that for all the hysteria over the last few decades, 83% of the rainforest is still standing despite only 25% of it being protected). By contrast, in the Cerrado in 2009, 7,637 sq km a year was lost, more than in the Amazon, in an area half the size. (If you crunch the numbers, this represents about 0.38% of the total area. If it’s half the size of the Amazon, development of the Cerrado is much the same in absolute terms as for the Amazon which is being presented as a success story here).
The loss is not only putting at risk animals, plants and the fight against climate change (they just can’t help themselves, can they?), but also affecting people who have lived off the land in isolated settlements for hundreds of years (but are now counting the cash from the sale of their land). Some of them make a living from harvesting and making jams and sweets from the fruits and from gathering plants used by Western medical companies to treat ailments such as high blood pressure (caused by reporting like this).
Jose Correia Quintal, head of the Coop Sertao Veredas, who was born in the Cerrado 52 years ago (but left it to make the living he couldn’t make in the Cerrado), said: “Development is important – we are not against development – but we understand that the development must be balanced.
“[Development] is bringing money and profits. But at the same time agrichemicals are affecting people’s health (whoa! Where did that come from?) and contaminating the rivers. The Cerrado biodiversity is very important, because each plant, each fruit, has a use for medicine or for food (unlike the useless but incredibly sought-after soy, apparently). Our concern is that many species are disappearing (you’ll note that in all this long article, no evidence is offered for this statement) – animals and vegetable species – and we rely on those species to survive” (how? Come on, tell us how ‘the spectacular blue and yellow macaw and giant armadillos’ help you survive) .
The Cerrado by numbers
2,036,448 sq km in size – about half as large as the Amazon rainforest
23 per cent is the proportion of Brazil it covers (if it’s half the size of the Amazon rainforest, that’s 69% of Brazil that the WWF seeks to control).
5 per cent of the world’s plant and animal species are found there (I’ve got a good percentage in my garden as well but it doesn’t stop me from cultivating it. You’d be surprised at how many bees visit)
80 per cent is the amount of pristine natural habitat lost so far (see above)
14,200 sq km a year was the rate of deforestation between 2000 and 2008 (when it wasn’t regarded as a problem. Now it’s half that rate, it is, apparently).
And now: some pictures of the Cerrado. I don’t claim that it is all like this or even that some of it is not worth preserving but does it really measure up to the picture the article seeks to portray?